Saturday, June 14, 2014

Chuck Noll, 1932-2014

To have won 2 World Championships in Cleveland is hard. To have won 4 World Championships in Pittsburgh is hard. To have done both is next to impossible. And to be admired in both cities, well, how many names can that list possibly have?

I can think of only one.

Charles Henry Noll was born on January 5, 1932 in Cleveland, and grew up on the East Side, which was largely becoming a black neighborhood. This prepared him for a football career in which he would have to play alongside, and later coach, black men. He once played on a youth team with Harold Owens, whose uncle was the Alabama-born, Cleveland-raised track star Jesse Owens.

He was a running back and a defensive tackle at Benedictine High School, whose alumni also include baseball player Mike Easler, golfer Tom Weiskopf, and Cleveland's most honored sportswriter, Terry Pluto. He played at the University of Dayton, and was named a co-captain as a senior. He was nicknamed "the Pope," because a teammate said that, when it came to football, he was "infallible." This may not have sat well with some: Like his high school, the University of Dayton is a Catholic institution.

Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown must have detected Chuck Noll's footbal knowledge, and selected him in the 1953 NFL Draft, and, at the dawn of the two-platoon era in the NFL, kept him at defensive tackle. The Browns lost the NFL Championship Game to the Detroit Lions that season, but beat the Lions in the 1954 NFL Championship Game, and the Los Angeles Rams in the 1955 edition.
Brown respected Noll's football knowledge so much, he would defy the new two-platoon system, and send him in at guard, and deliver the plays to quarterback Otto Graham. Graham resented this: As a man who got into Northwestern University, as close to an Ivy League institution as the Midwest has, he was very smart, and had already proven it for Brown time and time again. Noll resented it, too, and hated being, as he put it, a "messenger boy."

In his rookie year, the Browns played the Philadelphia Eagles, who had the great center and linebacker Chuck Bednarik. Bednarik was as tough as men have ever come, and hadn't yet started wearing a facemask, which was a new innovation at the time. He snapped the ball, raised his head, and got clobbered by the onrushing tackle. When he came to, he saw the player who hit him turn around and walk away. He couldn't see the face, but when his eyes cleared, he saw the uniform number: 65. And he said, "You son of a bitch! I'll get you!"

It was Noll. For whatever reason -- it wasn't injuries, nor was it military service, as was possible with the military draft still in place -- Bednarik didn't have a good shot at "getting" Noll for 4 years. In 1957, they played each other at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, and Bednarik roughed Noll up all game on the line of scrimmage.

As the clock ticked down, Noll screamed at Bednarik that not only would he take him out, but he'd fight the entire Eagle team. Bednarik later admitted that was "Pretty tough." He told Noll he wouldn't have to do that, that he'd be ready for him. When the final gun went off, with the Browns 24-7 victors, Noll came at Bednarik. But he made a crucial mistake: He'd removed his helmet. He yelled, "Are you ready, you -- " But before he could call Bednarik whatever he was going to call him, he was close enough for Bednarik to launch, as the singer Jimmy Dean would later put it, a crashing blow from a huge right hand. Noll was out cold, and a tremendous melee began between the teams.

NFL Commissioner Bert Bell had been the founder of the Eagle franchise, still had the League office in his hometown of Philadelphia, and attended every Eagle game. Knowing that a quirk in the schedule had the teams playing each other again the very next week, in Philly, Bell hauled Bednarik into his office, and told him to go into the Browns' locker room at Connie Mack Stadium, and apologize to Noll in front of everybody. He did. Noll glared at him, and growled, "Bullshit." Bednairk figured he'd followed orders, and turned around, and only then did Noll say, "All right, I accept your apology." The Eagles won, 17-7.

The Browns reach the NFL Championship Game again that season, Jim Brown's rookie year, but lost to the Lions, and lost a Playoff for the 1958 NFL Eastern Division title to the Giants. After the 1959 season, Noll lost his starting position to John Wooten, and retired.


No college hired him as a coach. Nor did any NFL team. But Sid Gillman, taking charge of the Los Angeles Chargers in the inaugural season of the American Football League, needed smart football men, and hired Noll. (He would also give Al Davis and John Madden, the men who built the Oakland Raiders into champions, their first coaching jobs.) The team moved to San Diego the next season. In the AFL's 1st 6 seasons, the Chargers reached the Championship Game 5 times, but only won in 1963.

He was offered a position on the staff of Don Shula with the Baltimore Colts, and in 1968 they won the NFL Championship. But now, there was an AFL-NFL World Championship Game, and that season was the 1st in which it was officially called the Super Bowl -- retroactively renamed Super Bowl III.

Legend has it that Billy Sullivan, owner of the AFL's Boston Patriots (they took the "New England" name for the 1971 season) was going to take an assistant coach from the staff of the winning team to be his new head coach. He presumed it would be the Colts, and his choice was Noll. But the Jets won in the legendary upset, and Sullivan chose one of their assistants instead, Clive Rush. It was a disaster. Imagine how the history of the NFL might have been changed if Chuck Noll had been the Pats' coach.

But Noll did get a coaching job for the 1969 season, with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their founding owner, Art Rooney, finally realized his love of the game far exceeded his knowledge of it, and handed the team off to his sons Dan (who ran the business side of it) and Art Jr. (director of scouting). Art Jr. noticed that, due to his former "messenger boy" status, Noll trusted his quarterbacks to call their own plays -- even the supposedly "dumb" Terry Bradshaw.

Noll and his players tended to argue, but they always developed a mutual respect. Enormous defensive lineman Ernie Ladd called him "the best teacher I ever played under. He and I were always fighting, always squabbling, but he had a great way of teaching." His relationship with Bradshaw would be similarly contentious: T.B. would find himself loving and hating the man at the same time. They famously patched things up at an awards dinner in 2003.

Willie Thrower had been the NFL's 1st black player to play at quarterback, and Marlin Briscoe and James Harris had started at the position in the AFL. But when Bradshaw faltered in preseason in 1974, Noll made Joe Gilliam the NFL's 1st black starting quarterback. But he was a bad choice: He was hooked on cocaine, and took Noll's authority to call his own plays too far, virtually ignoring the strong running game the team had with Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. After 6 games, with the Steelers lucky to be 4-1-1, Noll benched him and brought Bradshaw back. The rest is history.
The Emperor Chaz and the Blonde Bomber

Steeler broadcaster Myron Cope nicknamed Noll "The Emperor Chaz," and the defensive line he built "The Steel Curtain." The Steelers had never played in an NFL Championship Game under any name, under any coach, before Noll arrived. By 1972, he'd gotten them into the AFC Championship Game. In the 1974 season, he led them into Super Bowl IX, and won the team's 1st title, in its 42nd season. He won Super Bowls X, XIII and XIV, too.

While Curly Lambeau of Green Bay, George Halas of Chicago and Vince Lombardi of Green Bay had coached at least 4 NFL Championship teams, Chuck Noll was the 1st to do so in the Super Bowl era. He has since been joined only by Bill Belichick, and we may never know how much of that is not legitimate.

The Steelers got old, but Noll retooled them, and won AFC Central Division titles in 1983 and 1984, reaching the AFC Championship Game again in 1984. After 4 seasons of struggle, he got them back into the Playoffs in 1989, and finally received his 1st NFL Coach of the Year award. But nothing lasts forever, and he was let go after the 1991 season. His record was 193-148-1, plus 16-8 in postseason play, for a total of 209-156-1.

He was kept on as an adviser, and divided his time between a house in Florida and a condo in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley, Pennsylvania. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Also in the Hall are his Browns coach, Paul Brown; his Browns teammates Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Jim Brown, Lou Groza, Dante Levelli, Len Ford, Bill Willis, Doug Atkins, Mike McCormack, Frank Gatski, Henry Jordan and Gene Hickerson; his Chargers boss, Sid Gillman; his Chargers players Lance Alworth and Ron Mix; his Colts boss, Don Shula; his Colts players Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Jim Parker, John Mackey and Gino Marchetti; his Steelers bosses Art Rooney Sr. and Dan Rooney; and his Steelers players Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Dermontti Dawson, Rod Woodson, and, for his coaching elsewhere, Tony Dungy.

In 2007, the stadium at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he'd taken the Steelers for preseason training camp, was renamed Chuck Noll Field. In 2011, Chuck Noll Way, a new street on the site of Three Rivers Stadium, was dedicated by the City of Pittsburgh.
Chuck Noll died yesterday, of complications of Alzheimer's disease, including heart trouble. He was 82 years old. He was an NFL legend that touched 4 franchises, winning 8 league titles, and becoming admired everywhere -- including in the famously feuding, especially in football, cities of Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

It's worth noting that Bill Cowher was from Pittsburgh, but played for the Browns, before becoming the man who succeeded Noll as Steeler head coach in 1992, and leading them to victory in Super Bowl XL in the 2005-06 season, finally getting that "One for the Thumb" they'd been trying for since 1980.

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